We are really excited to share with you these two awesome Zagreb itineraries. This post is written by Andrea, a fellow blogger and Zagreb native, and it's one of the best posts we've published so far (Thanks Andrea!).
Table of Contents
Zagreb – from rags to riches
Zagreb has received unprecedented tourist attention in the last few years. Europe Best Destinations, a non-profit Brussels-based organization that promotes culture and tourism in Europe, voted it 2nd best destination in 2014.
Zagreb has truly experienced a rags-to-riches journey. Even when Croatia changed its image from a war-torn country into an unspoiled Mediterranean paradise – Zagreb was just a convenient stop-over en route to the coast. Not anymore!
More and more foreign tourists flock to Croatia’s capital. Even this winter season yielded amazing results. Advent in Zagreb, a rich tourist program organized throughout December, secured Zagreb an admirable place on the world tourist map.
This abundant tourist marketing has its downside. To draw more guests to a destination, it creates a perfect image for it. The one given to Zagreb is “a 3-day city break”.
You might wonder why I have a problem with that. And why you as a traveler in Zagreb would want more than that.
Zagreb – more than a 3-day city break
Most travel guides offer similar lists of top things to do in Zagreb: Upper Town, Mirogoj Cemetery, Museum of Broken Relationships, St. Mark’s Church, The Stone Gate, Botanical Garden, and The Cathedral of the Assumption – to name a few.
If you follow these suggestions, your Zagreb 3-day break will be pleasantly spent. You might even think that staying longer would have left you with nothing else to do.
This is tourist marketing talking. And I strongly disagree. Actually, I despise the tendency to turn travelers into rushing tourists, offering tips on how to spend as little as several hours at a place. Like this one on how to spend 36 hours in Zagreb.
Zagreb is actually not a very touristy place, because the best the city offers is not packaged as a place to see or a thing to do. If you see recommended Zagreb highlights, you’ll soon realize this: they are pretty, charming, and interesting, but they lack the grandeur and monumentality of the sights in London, Moscow, or Berlin.
How can you, for example, impress a Londoner with the charming but small Zagreb Botanical Garden when they have Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath, and Richmond Park? Don’t think this is a value judgment of Zagreb sights. I love every one of them and I think people should undoubtedly see them. I am saying – Zagreb is unique for something completely different.
It’s one of Europe’s nicest walkable cities. And I don’t mean only in terms of its size.
For example, you can easily explore central Zagreb on foot – skipping even lovely blue trams. But getting the most out of Zagreb’s walkable character has more to do with a mindset than the size of its streets.
To challenge the myth of a 3-day city break and be a true traveler, you’ll need to acquire a whole different attitude: become a Zagreb flâneur.
Zagreb flâneur and no to-do lists
Flâneur in French means a stroller or a loafer. The character originates from the 19th-century picture of Parisian streets and it carries a rich set of associations: a person of leisure, urban explorer, passionate observer, and connoisseur of the street.
Even though a flâneur is known for aimless rambling through the cityscape, flâneurie is much more than doing nothing. Honeré de Balzac described it as ‘the gastronomy of the eye’ – a way of experiencing and understanding a rich variety of urban environments.
A flâneur is both a local and a foreigner. They know all the nooks and crannies of a city, but this knowledge springs from straying off the beaten path. In some way, a flâneur opposes and goes beyond a city’s tourist highlights. So to be a Zagreb flâneur, you don’t have to be born and bred in Zagreb. In fact, by coming from outside and exploring non-touristy routes, you are already becoming one.
Two Zagreb itineraries for a flâneur
I’ve just told you to go out and aimlessly roam the streets of Zagreb: no to-do lists, no itineraries. But I also want to help you get started. You should at least know what is out there.
When a British friend – a true flâneur – visited me in Zagreb, I took him on the route that I’ll shortly send you. He had already seen much of the Zagreb tourist offer. But on our flâneurie, he couldn’t stop sighing in amazement, wondering why no one had told him about this walk. That afternoon, he admitted, completely changed his experience of the city. Hopefully, it will help you have the same revelation.
A good thing about not living in the 19th century is online technology. Put to good use, it gives us, flâneurs, a head start. Don’t fret, it doesn’t require a lot of expertise. I use the web-based tool Wikiloc to chart my walks. I give you the routes embedded on a google map and links to access the details (stories, waypoints, pictures) on the Wikiloc website. But what’s even cooler is that you can use Wikiloc mobile application (free for both android and iPhone) and synch my walks onto your mobile – then you only need to retrace my steps!
#Flâneurie 1 – hidden leafy Zagreb and Upper Town museums
This walk starts at Britanac Square – the second oldest Zagreb square and a landmark of this arty neighborhood. It takes you uphill through a hidden green common (Rokov Perivoj) and a beautiful forested path (Dubravkin put) all the way to an open green summit (Cmrok), from which you get amazing views of the city. This part of the walk is leafy and serene, making you forget you’re in the city at all.
The way down leads through Jurjevska street, revealing stunning early 20th-century architecture. The street features some of the prettiest urban villas built around the 1920s. Some are slightly decrepit while others have been renovated (often in tasteless nouveau-rich style). You’ll get a sense of the once bourgeois culture of Zagreb, now crisscrossed with different layers of the city’s history.
Jurjevska ends at a small charming square, Ilirski Trg: a northern entrance to Upper Town. Here is one of the best-hidden coffee shops in Zagreb – Palainovka. Quirky and cozy, it used to be a hide-out of Croatia’s great writer Antun Gustav Matos. After a refreshing drink, the walk takes you to the three best small museums of Upper Town: Atelier Mestrovic, Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, and Museum of Broken Relationships. Some are more famous than others, but they are all worth visiting. The best thing about them is that they are full of character, small, well laid out and they can be explored in less than an hour.
After a museum visit, stray off the trail even though it takes you to the Jelacic Square (main Zagreb square). Find another great coffee place and keep charting your own flâneurie.
Things to admire on this Zagreb walk
1 | Ruined villa on the way up to Rokov Perivoj
Seeing this dilapidated house will make you weep. Its old glory shines through crumbling walls, broken windows, and piles of rubbish in the courtyard. No one lives here anymore, even though the house is surrounded by affluent residencies.
It belonged to one of Croatia’s most distinguished sculptors: Vojin Bakic. Much of Bakic's work was destroyed during the Tudjman era, mainly because of his Serbian ethnic origin. His wish to turn the house into a gallery after his death never came to fruition. Zagreb city council aimed to refurbish the house but legal quarrels over its ownership put a stop to the project.
2 | Aleksandrove stube (Alexander Stairs)
A secluded set of staircases lead from Rokov perivoj to Tuskanac (which further connects with Dubravkin put). The hilly parts of Zagreb (everything north from the main street Ilica) is full of narrow staircases, often exuding an air of mystery and eeriness. They have been built to connect and crisscross larger streets usually laid out in the north-south direction. You can see many interesting graffiti on Alexander staircases.
3 | Cmrok
A wide green expanse surrounded by woodland offers beautiful views of the city. You can spot the famous Mirogoj cemetery dome from here. I usually stop here and just breathe in the fresh air.
4 | Jurjevska street
The whole street is a monument to the once-bourgeois Zagreb. Admire the original, now slightly run-down, urban villas, juxtaposed with the more modern ones. I prefer the Art Deco style, but later architecture is no less interesting, telling you of different historical and political developments of the city.
5 | St. George’s chapel and old Orthodox cemetery
Halfway down Jurjevska, on your left-hand side, there is a small chapel. Don’t miss poking your nose into the courtyard – it hides an atmospheric old cemetery and moss-covered tombstones. Not many people will know of it!
One of the best coffee shops in Zagreb is tucked behind a chapel on Ilirski Trg. In the old days, it had a piano and was frequented by A.G. Matos (Croatian writer). It still oozes with ambiance and in the summer is the coolest terrace in town.
7 | Upper Town museums
I love compact, well-organized museums that don’t leave me with a feeling of having missed something. All three museums are like that, but my favorite is the Atelier Mestrovic. The sculptor lived and worked in this house. Enjoy some of Mestrovic’s best work and get a unique glimpse into an Upper Town private interior.
#Flâneurie 2 – the Sava river and socialist cityscape
Many tourists miss the fact that Zagreb has a river: the Sava. Unlike the Vltava in Prague or the Thames in London, the Sava doesn’t flow through the center of Zagreb. It’s probably why some people say that Zagreb doesn’t like its river.
The Sava also caused a disastrous Zagreb flood in 1964. Today the riverbed is surrounded by wide green mounds on both sides. The walking paths alongside are not a usual urban trail but are definitely worth exploring.
People who love the Sava mounds most are runners and joggers. You’ll see many activities taking place there: from cycling, fast walking, and baby strolling – but runners have almost acquired a monopoly over these trails. When you follow this Sava flâneurie, you’ll observe captivating urban sculptures dotted around. The most memorable one is the statue of the runner.
The walk begins at Bocarski dom (bowling sports center) and leads to the Sava mound through a small playground. It’s a long linear stroll along the river, first to the right towards the Railway Bridge and then back to the left towards the Mladost Bridge. On the way back and to avoid retracing your steps, it takes you into a residential area of Cvjetno naselje to explore some of the nicest and truly interesting socialist villas built around the early 1960s.
Things to admire on this Zagreb walk
1 | Sculptures alongside the Sava mound
There are numerous sculptures all along the walking/running track on the Sava mound. Each one is interesting, but my favorite ones are the runner and the three frogs.
2 | Kockica
Kockica (little cube) is a cubic glass building on the northern mound. It was built in 1968 to host the Communist Party Headquarters. It’s a valuable tribute to the socialist clean-line, functionalist architecture. Today it’s home to the Croatian Ministry of Maritime Affairs, Transport and Infrastructure, and The Ministry of Tourism.
3 | Pogon Jedinstvo
Jedinstvo used to be one of the largest factories in socialist Croatia, producing equipment for the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. It was called a factory that manufactures factories. After closing down in the early 1990s it was turned into the cultural center Mocvara. Jedinstvo is among many tragic examples of how powerful socialist factories met their end, either through corrupt privatization or simply due to Europe’s deindustrialization tendencies. The old industrial architecture is an important part of Zagreb's cultural heritage.
4 | Cvjetno naselje
Several streets north of the Sava mound uncover a residential area built for the highest-ranking communist politicians. Roam these streets to admire socialist villas – a funny contradiction since socialism was supposed to be an egalitarian society. The houses are huge and some, which are kept in good condition, exhibit the finest features of the 1960s urban prestige. Close by are socialist skyscrapers built around the same time, but for the proletariat, not the ruling class. Another nice example is that socialism had a class ideology of its own.
5 | Pecenjara Cvjetno
Just before you finish your walk, stop in this unobtrusive grill house and get some of the best cevapi (a Croatian kebab) in town. There aren’t many coffee places around this area, apart from Ferax café, just opposite Bocarski dom. The place is nothing special, but again, an authentic example of a neighborhood hang-out: quite a different story from fancy central Zagreb coffee places.
I hope these two walks stretched your legs a bit. You’ve uncovered a different Zagreb for yourself and become a true flâneur. There is a kind of intimacy born from aimless city roaming, which I believe is a true purpose of travel.
Andrea Pisac is a fiction writer and cultural anthropologist. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter or follow her blog Travel Honestly for more ideas on how to be a local in Zagreb. You can also rent her central Zagreb apartment.
Did you like this post? What do you think about these two Zagreb itineraries? Let us know in the comments below.